“Gamification” as a Path to Learning

We’ve been hearing a steady drumbeat for some time about what games have to teach us about the way learning works. Some people (unsurprisingly, people who sell game development!) assert that this research suggests that learning opportunities should increasingly be presented in the context of games.

I disagree. I think what gaming teaches us about learning is that learning is facilitated by contexts in which:

  1. Learning is primarily experiential – people do stuff and observe the results of their actions
  2. The rules are explicit, or alternatively, introduced through exercises which start with the basics and grow in complexity as the learner demonstrates mastery.
  3. Errors are immediately apparent, and setbacks due to error commission are recoverable.
  4. Increasing mastery is explicitly rewarded with access to more complex “work.”
  5. Extraordinary performance is explicitly rewarded with a listing on a widely visible leader board.
  6. Rewards are issued promptly after demonstrations of mastery.

Interestingly, people who become engaged with a game tend to seek each other out, even if the game itself is only single-player. There are multiple YouTube videos out for each and every level of Angry Birds, demonstrating to those who are stuck how others have met this challenge.

These are lessons we should take to heart as we organize our work cultures. We know that 70% of learning takes place, informally, on the job. We can facilitate that learning by being thoughtful about the progression of assignments for new workers. If we are careful to create a non-punitive culture around mistakes, we can address errors more quickly, which in itself makes them more recoverable, but also encourages the sharing of war stories around similar experiences which are part of the tacit knowledge in every organization.

We can’t generally arrange for assignments to grow in complexity at the precise rate of our employees’ competency growth, but we can make a point of letting them know that we believe they have advanced to a new level and will be on our minds for the next appropriate assignment when it comes along. And we certainly can reward excellent work with wide recognition.

People who work in organizations with this sort of culture don’t need their training presented in the spoon-full-of-sugar format which games present. They’ll seek it out in whatever format is available if their colleagues have recommended it as a useful boost for getting to the next level on the “game” that is their job.